LOS ANGELES--Ask Xavier Su'a-Filo--the best offensive line prospect to enter the UCLA program in over a decade--how hard it was for him to have been on the other side of the country serving an LDS mission, while his Bruins teammates went 4-8 and 6-8 and the 21-year-old crinkles his nose and takes a deep breath.
Su'a-Filo, who was sent to Tallahassee, Fla. to do his mission work after a freshman season where he started all 13 games at left tackle for the Bruins in 2009 and earned honorable mention All-Pac-10 status, explains that though the weekly emails from his dad he was learning what was going on with his old team. After all, it had been a tumultuous two years around Westwood. The coaches who had recruited him from Utah out to UCLA would eventually get fired towards the end of the 2011 season.
It was hard, Su'a-Filo says after a few seconds. He was helpless, especially for a program that was being rocked by injury and instability along the offensive line. "I was aware of what was going on, but all I could do was wish the best for my boys," says Su'a-Filo, who did his mission work traveling around Florida and Alabama. "I knew that I had committed to my mission and I couldn't change that."
Getting mad, he said, would only distract from the work he was doing. And that was challenging enough.
The lowest point for Su'a-Filo came during one of the many times when he and another missionary would knock on doors to "spread the gospel." Some days, even when folks weren't necessarily buying his message, they'd still invite Su'a-Filo and the other man he was working with in for a soft drink just out of Southern hospitality and make small talk. On one particular day, Su'a-Filo was in Tallahassee. A man in his late 40s answered the door. He told the 6-4, 310-pound Su'a-Filo that he didn't have the time and was not interested.
"Is there possibly another time when I could come back? Su'a-Filo asked.
The man answered by spitting right in Su'a-Filo's face.
"I was shocked," Su'a-Filo said Tuesday. "I honestly didn't know how to respond at first."
Su'a-Filo had been spat on once before in his life. It occurred on the football field when I was a freshman in high school.
How did he respond then?
"I punched the guy in the face," he said.
This time was different. He was there to do missionary work for his church. "You have to keep up that image," he said. "You always have to remember who you are representing. You have to be the bigger man. So I just wished him the best and walked away.
"It was a pretty ridiculous experience."
Dealing with rejection, though, is part of that process, he came to realize. You learn a lot about people, and yourself from living two years away doing mission work as the UCLA lineman did. He says he missed the game, the camaraderie of playing with "his boys" and especially the physical aspect of football, of making a block that puts a defender on his back to help spring a long run by a teammate.
Su'a-Filo always planned on coming back to UCLA--even through the coaching change after Rick Neuheisel was fired. "I was only going to transfer if UCLA didn't want me back," he said.
The new Bruin staff is thrilled to have him. He figures to anchor what has been a very shaky O-line. In 2011, UCLA was 88th in scoring offense. Su'a-Filo stepped back into his familiar left tackle spot Tuesday afternoon as the team adjusts to a new scheme that will use a more up-tempo, no-huddle approach with completely different terminology. Getting his conditioning back is going to take some time, Su'a-Filo realizes. He did get to play a little basketball, but not much else. His weight, while on the mission, fluctuated between 285 and 320.
"He looked really good, especially for Day One," new Bruin offensive line coach Adrian Klemm said after UCLA's first spring practice Tuesday night. "He is just so gifted an athlete for someone his size. He has great feet and balance and can really bend. There was some rust there, but it was the rust you'd expect someone to have from not playing from the end of the last season to spring ball, not the type of rust you'd from two years."
Su'a-Filo said he felt better than he thought he would, but, ooooh, is he sore: "I feel kinda mechanical, like it wasn't natural, but I'm just so happy to be back out there."
Almost as happy as UCLA is to get its left tackle back.